Dean Kuipers' Operation Bite Back: Rod Coronado's War to Save American Wilderness explores a world known to few, but intensely followed by environmentalists on one hand and the FBI on another. Actually, it is not fair to paint this as an us vs. them book, since the actions of Rod Coronado, the subject of the book, splits even the environmentalists.
Coronado is an environmental activist who eventually began breaking into areas where animals were held and freeing them before burning down research centers. His radical beliefs have made him a folk hero among some, a terrorist to others, and an enigma to still more. Kuipers traces Coronado's life in such a way that we see his eventual criminal acts as a natural development of his ideals. He is raised with a love of nature, but moves from a hunter and fisher to become a vegan devoting his life to saving animals.
Coronado's radical beliefs are fostered early by Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd organization. Along with another member, Coronado sank two whaling boats in Iceland, although they made sure no people were on board at the time. This daring action quickly propelled him to fame and he escaped prosecution since Watson claimed credit to protect the two involved. We then see Coronado's involvement with Earth First! and the Animal Liberation Front, two more aggressive organizations aiming to undermine industries exploiting nature.
Eventually Coronado develops Operation Bite Back, which focused on fur farms and the fur trading industry. The book takes off in Kuipers' descriptions of the operations, which read at times like spy thrillers as Coronado stakes out his targets and avoids detection. Kuipers is clearly an environmentalist himself, and his journalism has focused on this area, which may explain his ability to get so many people to talk about illegal activities. The reader gets a full description of the rationale, the action, and the reactions behind the different attacks.
One of the more interesting aspects of Operation Bite Back surrounds Coronado's "disappearance" from society once the FBI identifies him and his picture begins adorning post office walls. A Native American, Coronado takes the time to begin fully examining his own roots, which not surprisingly support his approach to life. Yet these new experiences lead him to a new understanding of himself and he begins to rethink some of his positions. We also get to see the paranoia which develops in someone who realizes that every new person could be an undercover agent or that a friend may turn him in for a reward. Coronado does not always handle the pressure well, but before he can break the FBI finally captures him.
Coronado's story is also caught up in the political debate of what constitutes terrorism, and after the 9/11 attacks his past actions are viewed in a new light. However, Kuipers paints the FBI as some evil force going after an innocent man, when in fact they are tracking down a multiple arsonist. Agree with Coronado or not, his work clearly fits something which the FBI does track down on a regular basis.
This is a story which has not ended, and Kuipers struggles with how to end the book which tends to fizzle out. Coronado is still actively involved in the animal rights movement, but some of his beliefs have changed. What Kuipers shows very well is that Coronado is a person who acts on his beliefs, but is also all too human. He makes mistakes in his work, in his relationships, and even in how he treats himself. While Kuipers clearly admires his subject, this is no hagiography.
For those unfamiliar with the radical environmental movement, Operation Bite Back will be eye opening and enlightening. For those who are part of that movement, they will find a person to emulate. For those somewhere in between, this book will leave you with more questions than answers, which is always the sign of a good book.